OpinionsTempest in a CoffeemugThe artist and the struggle

The artist and the struggle


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Second part in the Short responses to things you must see series

If there is a thread we can pounce on with the body of work of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, it may be this: you die, or at least suffer, for your art or your ideal. That was immediately apparent when I first saw π [Pi, 1998] years and years ago. Pi was about an obsessive number theorist named Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) who struggles to understand the string of numbers hidden in the Torah and with a mysterious 216-digit number his computer not-so-randomly spat out one day. Later on, we see Max’s cinematic cousins in Ellen Burstyn’s Sara Goldfarb who struggles to fit into an old red dress with the use of amphetamines in Requiem for a Dream [2000], Hugh Jackman’s Tommy who struggles to find a cure for his wife’s brain tumor in The Fountain [2006], and Mickey Rourke’s Robin Ramzinski who struggles with an ailing heart to win one last match in The Wrestler [2008].

Now, in the terrific and terrifying Black Swan [2010], Aronofsky unveils his new obsessive in Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayer, a ballet dancer known for perfect technique but not for raw uninhibition needed to truly achieve riveting dance. She begins to lose her mind, in a living nightmare reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion [1965], as she struggles to lose her straight-laced constraints to truly become the titular ballet role. Her perfection–dull and unseductive–slowly cracks.

Mr. Aronofsky knows. He knows the terrible beauty and the exacting nature of artistry or the search for that perfection or ideal. In his previous films, however, one does not get a close-enough cinematic depiction of the need–or the hunger–to achieve that artistic ideal. In Black Swan, he finally does. Take note of that transformation scene when Nina finally breathes in her terrible achievement: she glows and menaces and walks around the backstage like a predator in ecstasy. I recognized that walk, that breathing, that deadly seduction set in the eyes. I told myself, that’s it–that’s the familiar high we get when we are in the very depths of the artistic zone. Mr. Aronofsky perfectly renders it. Which is why I love this film. It is not subtle, and does not aim to be–and so one should not fault it for being the visceral assault that it is. It perfectly captures that throbbing sensuality of having to surrender, little by little, all that we are in the service of our art. And if we have to die for it, we do so with the comfort of knowing we have created something immortal in the process, the applause we get becoming a mere trifle in the exquisite bloodletting it requires.

* * *

I strangely find it difficult to articulate what I feel after seeing Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s Howl [2010] tonight. I came out of the Bijou knowing perfectly well what I felt about it: that I loved it. But why exactly? For most movies, it’s easy to give a reason for one’s liking or disliking its story, its themes, or its craftsmanship, opinions that ultimately boil down to the film’s handling of its formalistic elements. But the film is not like any other movie. It is not a typical narrative film told in a straight, conventional manner. In fact has the feel of a documentary. (Then again, the directors are primarily documentary filmmakers; both are responsible for what I consider to be the best chronicle about gayness in the history of film, The Celluloud Closet.) Its structure is interesting bricolage. And its subject matter is quite unusual for a feature film. Perhaps it tickled my literary or intellectual fancy–this is a film that will be devoured by any creative writing and literary criticism major. I know that sounds snobbish, but in an age of filmmaking that is inundated by Transformers movies and their ilk, Howl becomes a breath of fresh air. Of course, there is a reason why the film takes its title from the pathbreaking poem by Allen Ginsberg, the beat writer who has become a generational icon and who is brilliantly portrayed in this film by James Franco. The reason is because it is a film of and about the poem, perhaps the first feature film that actually tries to do a cinematic treatment of a poem. (Is there any other poem that has gotten this cinematic treatment?) One may easily be led to believe though, from what we hear about the film in the grapevine, that this is a biopic. It is not. We do get generous snippets episodes (as well as psychoanalysis) of Ginsberg’s life, but these episodes are in the service of telling the story of the poem “Howl”. It is a film about its creation and about the furor of the obscenity case that was leveled against its publication by City Lights in San Francisco. It is also a film about its utterance–in a sense, a reading of the poem set to a visual rendition. And according to Stanley Fish, this is also the first film to do a thorough depiction of the act of literary criticism. I love the film. It is unusual, especially in terms of structure. There are four acts here that weave together in a kind of documentary finish:

Ginsberg being interviewed about the poem, Ginsberg’s first reading of the poem at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, the 1957 obscenity trial against its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the entire poem read and set in animation. Each thread comment and enlighten each other, and so in a sense Fish is right: the film becomes an act of close-reading, the first of its kind I see rendered in cinema. This will not be everybody’s cup of tea –but for those who are receptive for films that talk about literature, its creative process, its interpretative strategies, and its eventual reach for relevance or impact to society in general, this is the film to devour and watch, again and again and again. (Next: Rabbit Hole, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The Fighter…)

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